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When rumour mills work overtime

When  rumour mills work overtime
Rumour mongering has become a grave problem in our society. With modern gadgets and technology in use, rumour mongering via social media has gone ugly, often to the extent of creating panic and unrest among masses. At times. the rumours spread have been so misleading that they have even sparked communal tensions in an already volatile environment. These rumour messages are often made viral via social networking sites like Facebook and WhatsApp where people fall into the misinformation trap.

Those of us who have been active on the social media are surely familiar with the story of  Sonam Gupta. Earlier this year, the picture of a battered Rs 10 note with ‘Sonam Gupta bewafa hain’ inscribed on it, surfaced on the internet. Even demonetisation could not deter the disgruntled lover from expressing himself, who wrote about Sonam’s betrayal again, on a Rs 2000 note which soon became viral on the social media.  Separate pages regarding this incident were made on Facebook and  got 27,145 people talking about it. Even the TV channels joined in and plunged into  the TRP race but no one could actually trace who is the ‘Sonam Gupta’ in question was.

Soon, the Sonam Gupta case took a serious turn when some people linked it as a secret code to demonetization recently. The word was spread and shared on Facebook and WhatsApp. A journalist from a prominent news channel posted on his wall on facebook, ‘Pokharan test had a secret code word –  ‘Buddha Smiling’. It seems like ‘Sonam Gupta bewafa hai’ is the secret code word for demonetisation. The journalist simplifies it and further and explains that if ‘Sonam’ meant money, then ‘Gupta’ would mean secret and ‘Bewafa hai’, demonetization. However, the claim had no substantial evidence and turned out to be a hoax.

Soon after demonetisation, rumours of a shortage of salt spread across the country and people were seen buying salt at much higher prices than the printed MRP. In many parts of the country including New Delhi, people were seen rushing to their nearest grocery stores for salt. Some of the local shopkeepers were seen basking in the rumours and sold one kg of salt for even Rs 200 when the printed price was just Rs 18.

“I bought two packets of salt for Rs 400. There is a huge rush and stock might not last”, said a resident of Jamia Nagar Delhi when asked why he bought salt at an escalated price. However, the news on Television channels tried to douse the flames of rumours by appealing to the residents to not believe in rumours which forced even the government to step in and say that there is no need to panic and there is an ample stock of salt within the country. When the rumours died after a day, a consumer who bought salt at the exorbitant price said,” I feel cheated now. It was my fault that I rushed to the store without verifying the news. I ended up buying 4 packets and wasting around Rs 500.”

Amongst other rumours gone viral is one regarding a Reliance JIO bill of Rs 27,718. The hoax talks of a woman from Kolkata who is said to have received a whopping bill of the said amount while she was on the Reliance Welcome offer. According to the fake bill, Ayunuddin Mondal is required to pay this huge sum for using 554.38 GB of data and 44 mins of voice calling. Considering the fact that Reliance Jio is offering charge–free service for the duration of JIO Welcome offer, it is not possible for any customer to receive a bill. The meticulously photoshopped bill doing rounds on WhatsApp seems to be an act of mischief.

“It is very difficult to verify the authenticity of every message received on social media. While learned men might choose not to fall prey to rumour mills, there are people who act as catalysts when it comes to spreading unverified messages like wildfires. Pressing the forward button is always tempting and easy” says Shadab Malik, a digital marketing professional. 

I am sure that most of the people reading this article would have gone through the message that once bombarded everybody’s cellphone. The message warned “Attention!! Tonight from 10:30 pm to 3:30 am Cosmic Rays will be entering Earth from Mars. So please switch off your mobile devices. At night do not keep your mobile phones beside you and place it away while sleeping.” The message in the name of public interest went on to urge people to forward it to others. Needless to say, it was a hoax and created immense confusion amongst people. Surprisingly, the message was forwarded even by the educated class. 

“This is crazy. I was surprised to see even people who have credibility, forward such messages. Most people unintentionally forward such messages without realising that they have actually fallen prey to conflation and add fuel to fire”, says Ashima, a resident of Faridabad.

The rumour missile didn’t even spare the Missile man of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Even before the former President actually died on 27 July 2015, there were rumours and viral messages shared on social media  that he had passed away. When the rumours grew at an alarming rate, the office of the President was forced to come forward and issue a statement conveying that the President was in good health and urged people not to believe in baseless rumours. Same was the case with the great Indian actor Yusuf Khan (Dilip Kumar). The fake news of the death of the ‘Tragedy King’ was spread via twitter and WhatsApp when he was hospitalised. Later, his wife Saira Bano had to make a public statement about his health rubbishing all rumours. Even legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan tweeted that the Dilip Sahab was in good health.

“I was returning from office when I heard this news. I could not believe this and called to one of my friends who happens to be a journalist, who promised to verify and revert as the news of Dilip Kumar’s death had created a lot of confusion. Later on, it was confirmed that it was a hoax”, Says Tayib Baig, who works in an MNC in Gurgaon.

However, sometimes rumour mongering becomes serious to the extent of endangering life and disrupt law and order. One can recall that during the Muzaffarnagar riots in  2013, a fake video of the alleged killing of Hindu youths by Muslim mobs was widely circulated. The gruesome video showed bearded men in traditional Muslim attire killing two youths mercilessly. It was later discovered that the video, originally from Pakistan, was of the infamous 2010 killings in Sialkot, Punjab province where two brothers were lynched to death by a mob which misidentified them as dacoits.

The fake video spread like wildfire in an already frenzied environment and was shared through Whatsapp and Facebook across the country. Even the BJP MLA Sangeet Som from Sardhana constituency of Meerut district shared the video on his Facebook page but later removed it after a case was registered by the UP police. The police immediately tried to block the fake video and was quick to register FIRs against the BJP MLA along with 229 others for promoting enmity on religious grounds.

The Delhi Police too has made vital efforts to combat rumour mongering which could lead to serious trouble. “Media credibility has been compromised to a large extent. We have provisions in IPC such as sections 153 and 505 to deal with the issue. The Delhi police keep informing the public through our social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.” Says Anyesh Roy, Additional DCP, Economic Offence Wing.

Despite provisions in the law, it is the duty of the society as a whole, to not forward any message without verification. This not only benefits media credibility but also stops rumours from causing excessive damages. Remember, rumours should meet first resistance from people of the society because by refusing to be a medium for propogation of misinformation, one could make a difference. Just ponder for a while before pressing the ‘Forward’ button. Let us put in our efforts to make our society a rumour–free society.
Zafar Abbas

Zafar Abbas

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